Voyeur of timeless England


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Category: International 29 Mar 09

With an unemployment figure of over two million people, a sinking pound, a crumbling property market and crashing banks, I expected some kind of post-war depression when I arrived in London, last week.

But my first sight was spring sunshine, heavy boots of builders simultaneously crushing daisies, hooting cheerily at a woman with a saucy walk, while shovelling down hefty ham sandwiches. The hoteliers didn’t seem bothered about reducing their prices. The men smoking their hookahs closed their eyes as the sun warmed their faces, and apple-flavour tobacco penetrated their mouths. On the tube, parents were telling their wiggling, screaming children to stop mucking about, shut up and eat their chips while they read the sports pages.

Books, blogs

And nurses sat demurely in a park eating their biscuits on their break.
I forgot about Westminster Abbey’s church bells. Also, how fast people walk. Old women, children, people in wheelchairs, women with prams, men with sticks pass us on the pavement, brisker than the sudden gusts of wind.

The railings of churches are filled with notices of concerts to come—Vivaldi, Bach, the Gregorian chants. The tube stops in a tunnel for no reason and everybody tries to look at nobody. Thousands of shoes chorus up stairs in rush hour. A beautiful girl in tall shoes and short skirt and red, red lipstick steps out an elevator and kisses her waiting boyfriend. This is London. The same as it always was. Yet, it’s not. Nothing will be the way it was.

Somewhere, in the last decade, between the terror attacks in London, Mumbai and New York; between the crash on Wall Street and the rise of the reality show celebrity; and the worldwide phenomenon of Facebook and blogs, the world shed yet another skin and changed for all of us irretrievably. We are looking at one another’s lives through machines, use fewer words to write, need to read less, surf more to get by. Still, it’s England, and here in a sleepy station in Hassocks, where friends meet us with warm hugs, the air smells of freshly cut grass, streets are cobbled, lanes are narrow, homes are 16th Century, and we feast on pub lunches of fish and chips and sticky toffee pudding.

In an Oxfam shop back in London, a woman tells me that more than 13 million people in the UK live in poverty—that’s one in five of the population. Many people can’t afford essential clothing, or to heat their homes. Children go to school hungry, or to bed without enough food. It’s not so different from Mumbai, where the slums are hidden from tourists, or the sad trailer parks in the US. The old rules are changing irretrievably. The old world is peeling away from us faster than we know.

President Barack Obama is the leader of the free world today, and in England, where people from all over the Commonwealth sent their children for a solid education and the Queen’s English, the Education Ministry is phasing in a new curriculum for primary students to learn how to twitter and blog and podcast. In Cambridge, things appear unchanged. In this magnificent seat of learning, a university made up of many colleges, Trinity alone—founded by Henry VIII—produced 31 Nobel Prize winners.

Unending possibilities

Amidst the students flying around on their bikes, their coats and skirts whipping in the wind, hands-free; where spring rages in a dusty gold in college gardens sprung with daffodils, beds of bluebells and fresh vines entwining ancient trees, it is still easy to think of a life of unending possibilities.

In the courtyards, Gonville and Caius (founded in 1348) in St Johns Clare’s, St Catherine's, Queens, Corpus Christi, and Pembroke amidst vast wooden gates, gargoyles, cobbled lanes suffused with the spirit of Isaac Newton and Darwin (girls oblivious of their beauty discuss Milton with their tutors on the street), it is easy to be a voyeur of timeless England.

Even Cambridge tutors embrace the influence of Jane Goody, a school drop-out, whose parents were on drugs, and who died recently of cervical cancer. She was so uneducated, she thought East Anglia was another country, was called a racist and bully on talk shows, but somehow, her honesty, curiosity, and willingness to learn, apologise and educate millions of women about cervical cancer triumphed over ignorance, as did her drive to sell her story while she was dying to create a fund so her two small sons “would have the education she would never have.”

When Goody died this month, a public death at age 27, her obituary was on the front pages of every newspaper in the country. She left £100,000 to children’s charities in India. She overcome class, socio economic odds, to become England’s sweetheart, defied by many, the princess of Bermondsey. There are so many ways of giving back to this world, chief among them dying courageously at 27, providing for your children’s future, publicising your experience so others would be spared of the same fate simply by doing a Pap smear.

The Brits are, I am happy to report, best foot forward, chin up, stiff upper lip and all that, but seriously, embracing the new, keeping the old, taking the recession with stoicism and quirky wit of remembered post-war years.

So, I close with a recipe for hard times pulled out of the Guardian from Heaths Good Potato Dishes, which the writer called a genuinely exciting discovery: “Bake some large potatoes in their jackets, cut them in half and scoop out most of the flesh. Put in a layer of spinach puree, break an egg, into each, season them and bake them in the oven until the egg is ready.”



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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur